In 2021, one of CU Denver’s top priorities is to become a Hispanic-Serving Institution, commonly known as an HSI, in an effort to support diversity, equity, and inclusion. If you haven’t heard the term HSI, you aren’t alone. The specifics of the designation remain largely unknown across the U.S., researchers say.
So, what exactly does it mean, and is it important to the CU Denver community and the city of Denver? The answer is an overwhelming yes, according to Abenicio Rael, MA, director of the Latinx Student Services in CU Denver’s Center for Identity and Inclusion. An HSI designation not only supports an institution’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also presents opportunities for grant funding and supports enrollment, retention, and graduation rates.
“To embrace the designation really means you are dedicated to serving students so they are successful,” Rael said. That, in turn, benefits the workforce.
Recognizing a Rapidly Growing Demographic
In the 1980s, educators and policymakers pursued HSIs as a grassroots effort to recognize institutions that enroll a large number of Latinx students, which was and continues to be a rapidly growing demographic in the U.S., according to Higher Education Today. From 2010 to 2019, the U.S. population increased by 18.9 million, and Hispanics accounted for more than half of that growth, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
In 1986, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) formed and would eventually become the membership association for HSIs. HACU persuaded Congress to formally recognize HSIs in 1992, resulting in federal funding to HSI-designated institutions, which today represent roughly 15 percent of all nonprofit colleges and universities and enroll more than half of all Hispanic students in college in the U.S.
In order to be eligible for an HSI designation, an institution’s undergraduate enrollment must be at least 25 percent Hispanic, as outlined in the Higher Education Act. With an HSI designation, an institution is eligible to compete for substantial grants from several organizations, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“Grant funding can range anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million,” Rael said. That funding applies to all students, faculty, and staff in an institution, and if used correctly can have a significant impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion. “The funding that comes through from HSI supports all students, and you can even use the funding to support faculty and staff development.”
Aside from the benefits of additional funding, having an HSI designation fosters an inclusive culture on campus—one that supports marginalized students from start to finish. A 2017 study by the American Council on Education, for reference, found that full-time students at public four-year HSIs complete within six years at a rate of nearly 75 percent, compared to a federal graduation rate of 42.7 percent.
“Having federal designation lets students know that CU Denver is embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion, and that we have the funding to help them pursue their goals and graduate college,” Rael said.
An Effort to Better Serve Colorado
At CU Denver, roughly one in four students is Hispanic, according to Faye Caronan, PhD, who heads Ethnic Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). Caronan was recently appointed as the chancellor’s first faculty fellow to support diversity, equity, and inclusion. In her new role, she will build upon multiple initiatives underway across campus and work with the chancellor and others to advance projects including the goal to achieve HSI designation in 2021.
“Obtaining HSI status will allow us access to resources to better serve our students and in turn better serve Colorado,” Caronan said. Those resources include federal grants that are specifically designated for HSIs. One example is funding from the Department of Education for HSIs to develop curriculum and programming aimed to increased Latino students in STEM.
Before applying for an HSI designation, institutions must meet the student demographic requirement and demonstrate eligibility for Titles III and V funding, which are 1) the percent of students who are eligible for a Pell grant (defined as need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students) or other Title IV need-based financial assistance and 2) if the institution falls below a “core expense per student” threshold.
In early 2020, CU Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus submitted data to demonstrate Titles III and V eligibility, which was approved in February 2020. The next step for the university will be to apply for HSI designation when applications next open, likely in January 2021.
Becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution would allow CU Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus to build upon existing programs and partnerships that focus on Latinx/Hispanic students who are seeking professional degrees in STEM and health careers, said Dominic Martinez, Ed.D., assistant vice chancellor of the Office of Inclusion and Outreach | Undocumented Student Services at the Anschutz Medical Campus. “This would bring additional and critical support as we work to build a critical mass of Latinx/Hispanic professionals that can go back and serve their communities,” he said.
The work won’t stop there. Because HSI is a socially constructed designation by the government and funding applies to all students, faculty, and staff, there is a struggle nationwide to define what it actually means, Rael explained. At CU Denver, he foresees leadership collaborating with the faculty and staff who work directly with students to make decisions that promote the designation in thoughtful ways, and support a positive campus experience for all.
“It can’t be a hidden identity—institutions must embrace the designation and promote the brand, and have a full understanding of what it means,” Rael said. “For our institution, this is a prime opportunity.”